Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Creek Dogs: MHS Makes AYP

I spent thirteen very good years teaching at Meadowcreek High School in Gwinnett County, Georgia.

Gwinnett is Georgia’s largest school system and home to some of the state’s most highly regarded high schools. Meadowcreek is not one of them. It is known for poor academic performance and for legendarily bad football teams. It is often referred to as “Ghettocreek” elsewhere in the county, and if by “ghetto” you mean “poor,” then the name fits, I suppose: well over half of the student body is eligible for free or reduced lunch.

But that isn’t the whole story, of course.

Meadowcreek is also known for having a stunningly multi-ethnic student body. Gwinnett has become a highly diverse county in the last ten to fifteen years, and ground zero for the coming of ethnic diversity was the Meadowcreek community. During my time there I taught students from all over the world: Romania, Mexico, Vietnam, Nigeria, Guatemala, Korea, Russia, Haiti, and on and on. The school has claimed to have over 90 nationalities, and I don’t doubt it (the flags of many of these nations hang in the cafeteria). This characteristic of the school naturally led to some challenges not faced by other schools in the county, but it gave the place a certain lively flavor and we endeavored to embrace it (“celebrating our diversity,” the phrase always seems to be). I loved it when a newspaper reporter, in a profile of the school, described Meadowcreek as being like “a cheerful port city on market day.” At its best, that’s how the school was.

And we were never really as bad academically as some wanted to portray us. We sent our share of kids to Governors Honors and to elite colleges, and there were always pockets of excellence within the school. During my last years there the Science Olympiad team was a state power, and I know that the culinary club has made headlines in recent years. One of my proudest moments as an MHS faculty member was a few years back when the student body presidents at both UGa and Georgia Tech were Meadowcreek graduates. We tried to emphasize these stories of accomplishment and create more of them, and we tried to remain undaunted by the school’s overall low socioeconomic status. Many of Meadowcreek's low SES students, facing obstacles that users of the "Ghettocreek" slur could scarcely imagine, were among the most committed and friendly I have ever encountered. There were outstanding teachers in every discipline, ready to meet our students where they were and do right by them. Still, we always knew where Meadowcreek's name would appear on days that the county high schools' standardized test scores were published: rock bottom. It was always discouraging. The “Ghettocreek” rep was hard to shake, but the students tended to take it in good humor. They called themselves “Creek Dogs.”

In the late nineties, we had a great girls basketball team, one of the top squads in the state, led by sisters Jocelyn Penn and Annie Lester. Those girls were scrappy and talented, easy to root for. At one game I attended, a forward named Ashley Kirkman dove out of bounds after a loose ball. She crashed into the old gym’s rollaway bleachers, rattling the wood and metal to make a frighteningly loud noise. She lay still, seemingly hurt badly. Anxiously waiting for signs of life from Ashley, the raucous crowd fell silent, and remained that way for several tense seconds. Then, a hip-hoppishly attired young man who had been sitting behind me broke the silence. He yelled, “SHE ALL RIGHT! SHE A CREEK DOG!” We all cheered his comment, and cheered even louder when Ashley stood up, obviously in pain but ready to keep playing.

I think of that incident often. It embodies the rough pride that many people at Meadowcreek – students, parents, faculty – feel about the school. I thought of it in particular when news broke last week that Meadowcreek made AYP this year. I think more of No Child Left Behind than do most teachers, but if I wanted an exhibit of why the whole “failing school” designation is unfair, I would have pointed to MHS. “That place is never going to make AYP, and it's not their fault,” I told people in conversation. Too many people with limited English, too little support for schooling at home. It was too much to expect this place to reach the standard.

They proved me wrong. I should have known better. They all right. They Creek Dogs.

1 comment:

Knox Porter said...

At times there was a gallant sprit at the Creek, and glorious moments of teaching and interacting with learners. As I look back on 32 years of teaching, some of my brightest memories arise from "Ghetto Creek."